NTSB Says Driver Fatigue is Top Cause of Bus Fatalities

Both approaches are well intentioned and overdue, but neither addresses the leading cause of bus accidents. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, driver fatigue was responsible for 36% of the fatalities in accidents the NTSB investigated from 1998 to 2008. That’s nearly double the 20% attributed to vehicle condition, the second leading cause. Every one of these crashes was preventable.

But future crashes won’t be prevented without Congressional action to impose reasonable rules on the intercity bus industry.

The ATU International and Local 1700 have embarked on a national campaign against driver fatigue. Topping the list of the union’s common sense proposals is getting rid of Section 13(b)(1) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which exempts inter- city bus carriers from paying drivers overtime.

One result of Congress deregulating intercity bus travel in 1982 was the birth of fly-by-night operators paying minimal wages. The FLSA exemption on paying time and a half for service beyond 40 hours in a week gives unscrupulous employers a reason to overwork drivers. Paying overtime would eliminate that economic incentive.

“Drivers are falling asleep at the wheel because they are forced to work grueling hours to make ends meet,” said Local 1700 President Bruce Hamilton. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Raising base-pay for drivers by just 10% reduces the probability of a crash by 34%.”

FLSA overtime provisions cover 85% of U.S. workers. There is no apparent connection between the industries that were granted the exemption, including boat salespeople, forestry employees, livestock auction workers and movie theater employees.

The ATU is calling on legislators to include lifting the FLSA exemption on overtime for inter- city bus drivers in highway safety bills now before Congress. A union white paper on highway safety, Sudden Death Overtime, points out, “If the teenager who rips your ticket at the movies falls asleep on the job, the only consequence is that patrons get in for free. When bus drovers fall asleep at the wheel, people die.”

Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, sponsor of H.R. 873 in the House, agreed. “Low wages and exhaustion are the true hidden causes of these tragedies,” Lewis wrote on July 20 to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This exemption forces bus drivers to often forego rest periods just to make ends meet. A simple update would significantly reduce the instances of extreme driver fatigue on our nation’s interstate roads.”

Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas are co-sponsors of S. 453 in the Senate. Hamilton and other Grey- hound drivers appeared at a Cleveland press conference in June with Senator Brown and relatives of bus passengers killed in a tour bus accident.

The Senate and House bills are known as the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011.